There has been no shortage of news stories about the anticipated religious overtones of Michael Jackson's funeral later today at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (The New York Daily News reported yesterday that the family had stalemated on what religion meant most to MJ, so the service would be God free.) Journalists have also speculated on what will happen to the King of Pop's earthly remains. And of course there has been the parlor game of trying to determine whether Michael Jackson was a Jehovah's Witness, a Muslim, a Christian or, perhaps, even a Jew.
But missing in all the discussion about Michael Jackson, God and his hereafter has been a very simple, yet incredibly difficult, question: If the King of Pop was a religious man, how could his life have been so empty, his soul so tormented?
One voice that has been valuable is that of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the rockstar Orthodox rabbi who was a close friend of Jackson's. In a Beliefnet piece, Shmuley, who had a falling out with Jackson not over any criminal charges but over his inability to get his life straight and to cope with the burdens of super stardom, wrote:
I did not think I would cry when Michael died. It was only when I went back and listened to the many hours of taped conversations that Michael and I conducted so that I would write a book that peered into his soul. Hearing his voice, hearing him say, in his long drawn out way, 'Shmmmuuuulleeeey,' That did it. The tears flowed. Yes, I was angry at him. Truly. He threw away his life. He had lived recklessly and orphaned his children. He had medicated away the afflictions of the soul as if they were ailments of the body until his body could no longer tolerate the abuse. He had squandered all of G-d's blessings. But he touched me nonetheless. He made me softer and gentler. He was highly imperfect and was perhaps guilty of serious, terrible sins for which there might not be any forgiveness. But G-d, was he tortured. And that is no excuse. Because you dare not visit your pain on an innocent party. But did that cancel out the good he tried to inspire in others?
I always believed that one day we would reconcile. That one day you would call me up and tell me that you regretted not heeding the simple advice to get your life together. That we would have Shabbat dinner together again and our kids would play as friends and we would all laugh. Alas, all we have left is the image. The dark, tragic, sad image. Of the King of Pop. The master of an empty Kingdom.
Rest in peace, Michael. Perhaps in heaven you will find the acceptance that you never quite found here on earth.
Now, we could debate whether Jackson is up in heaven. But that's not the purpose of this blog post or this blog community. What is worth evaluating is what Shmuley Boteach, the closest thing to a spiritual adviser Jackson during the past decade or so, had to say about his friend's tormented soul.
Shmuley told me when I called him, in my capacity at The Jewish Journal, immediately after learning of Jackson's death that he really wasn't surprised; he'd been waiting for that day for a long time. Shmuley has also had TV appearances, like this one on CNN, and devoted his weekly Jerusalem Post column Sunday to "the eulogy that should be given to bring redemption to Michael's life."
But Shmuley has been largely missing from mainstream newspapers -- likely because this element of the Jackson story has been missing. Indeed, when the AP spoke with Shmuley, it was to find out whether Jackson was good a good father or whether he acted more like Mr. Jefferson on South Park.
Doesn't this seem amiss? Whether you believe in God or not, it's likely you accept that religion gives meaning to a great many people. (If it didn't, Rick Warren wouldn't be able to reverse tithe.) But if religion gives life meaning and purpose, why was Jackson so unable to settle on one? What was he looking for, and why couldn't he find it?
And why isn't anyone trying to answer this question for us?